Who pays the bills?

I believe as firmly as anybody that education is a right of every child and education according to the ability of each should be free – ideally. The trouble is that we don’t live in a world of pure ideas. If we did, we could have free education up to some defined level for all by simply saying in the Constitution that it will be provided. In the real world, only magicians claim to do that.

Let’s look at what really happens.

The Constitution says all children are to be admitted to school free. Your friendly local headmaster accepts 100 children who cannot pay fees. He has to buy them exercise books and text books. He places orders, and when the bill comes, he sends it to the government. We know what happens then.

Any headmaster who knows that even the promised salaries for his teachers cannot be relied on is unlikely to put himself in this situation. But he needs to be very tactful. Not all teachers are. If they are not, they have fallen for government’s trick. That shifts the blame for mismanagement. They said no child should pay fees, which makes them sound like the good guys. They didn’t say who would pay. Do we still need someone to speak for the teachers? The truth is that nothing is free. A teacher who hasn’t been paid for six months needs to say openly that (s)he must do something else to put food on the table for a hungry family. The headmaster who can’t pay bills must say “I can’t accept children because we don’t have books (or desks and chairs) for them.” Filling the school with children (s)he can’t teach only gives him/her a different problem.

We’ve heard too much of this from Zanu (PF). “Health services are free” but they don’t buy the medicines needed; even Parirenyatwa Hospital lacks piped water. “All electricity bills are cancelled”, but nobody is paying ZESA’s bills for fuel or their workers’ wages.

It doesn’t need to be like this. It wasn’t when Dr. Chidzero was Minister of Finance. In those days, government had real policies. They didn’t only say education should be free; they told us how they were going to do pay for the job. The government Budget said how much tax everyone should pay and how much of that money should go to each Ministry. Each Ministry needs to know how much money they will have, and to spell out how they will spend it. All of that information should be in the Finance Minister’s annual Budget speech. Dr. Chidzero knew that; does Mr. Chinamasa or the people who put him in his present uncomfortable position?

The Finance Ministry needs to ask the other Ministries how much they need for their programmes and ask them two more questions: “Can you do this at a lower price?’ and “Is there anywhere else you can get the money?”

In the 1980s, government encouraged communities to do what they could for themselves. We saw many build their own schools. They encouraged schools to find other sources of income; that was one of the reasons for the “education with production” policy.

Few teachers had been trained to make serious productive projects work, but in time they would have learned and schools could have become more self-supporting. Government officials disliked school buildings built of local brick, or thatch, by local people, so they sent builders and bricks from town to build “proper schools”. They meant well, but did anybody ask where the money for urban-style buildings would come from? At least they were trying.

And now, does anyone ask why some people run around town in 4x4s that never leave the tarred roads, while out there in the sticks, ragged, hungry children struggle to learn in schools without books or chalk?

Post published in: Opinions & Analysis

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